With Duke's matchup against Indiana in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl just days away, The Chronicle's football beat writers tackle key questions that will determine the outcome of the game as the Blue Devils aim to snap a bowl victory drought that dates back to 1961.
Duke is going to be without ACC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American Jeremy Cash Saturday after the redshirt senior underwent wrist surgery last week. What will his absence mean schematically, and how well do you see the Blue Devils absorbing the loss of their star safety?
Nick Martin: I think the loss of Jeremy Cash was not as unexpected as it initially appeared to be for the Blue Devils, but even still, the team as a whole is going to be without its top playmaker as it limps into its fourth consecutive bowl game. Even in the lopsided loss to North Carolina and the controversial Miami defeat, Cash stood as out as a player still capable, and willing, to affect the game. In Duke’s five losses, Cash averaged 9.4 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, embracing the leadership role he took on in his final year in Durham. The loss of Cash will most likely thrust redshirt sophomore Phillip Carter into the starting lineup alongside Corbin McCarthy and Deondre Singleton. I wouldn’t expect the Blue Devils to put their new starter in as many risky situations as they did Cash, who would be in the backfield almost as often as he would the flats. I believe the team will bounce back fairly easily from this loss mentally, though. The defense is and has always been a confident group throughout the season and the ability for a new player to step in for their star is an exciting offer. Of course, this is not to say Duke is better without Cash—they aren’t—but I don’t expect this to doom them.
Seth Johnson: To see the Blue Devils without Cash, you only have to look back at the first half of the season finale against Wake Forest, when the redshirt senior was sidelined due to a targeting penalty the previous week against Virginia. Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles shifted redshirt junior DeVon Edwards to cornerback—a move that will stick for the bowl game according to Edwards. At safety, Knowles relied on McCarthy—alongside Singleton and Carter—to replace Cash. Expect the defense to run with the same lineup in the postseason, meaning that the Hoosiers will most likely shy away from Edwards’ side of the field and capitalize on the opportunity to pick on Carter, who has only registered stats in two games this season. With Edwards at corner and Cash on the sideline, Duke will likely function without its typical strike safety abilities, meaning that there will be less dynamic pressure coming from the secondary on Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld—a potential problem for the Blue Devils considering he led the Big Ten in passing yards per game.
Brian Mazur: There’s no doubt that Cash’s absence will hurt the Duke defense. The Blue Devils have already had to deal with losing cornerback Bryon Fields and linebacker Kelby Brown for the entire season, and now will be without arguably one of the best defensive players the program has ever had. Duke is going to miss Cash’s presence near the line of scrimmage, especially if Indiana running back Jordan Howard—who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season—is able to overcome a knee injury and play. But here’s the good news for Duke. The Hoosiers run more of a spread-type offense that somewhat limits Cash’s ability to wreak havoc near the line of scrimmage. The redshirt senior was much more effective against teams like Georgia Tech, Boston College and Navy that liked to run the ball a lot or ran an option offense, but less effective against ACC teams that ran the spread. Duke is going to miss Cash’s presence, but McCarthy has plenty of playing experience and the injury isn’t going to make or break Duke’s chances to win the game.
Sam Turken: Cash has been the Blue Devils’ most versatile defender, relying on his instincts to make plays at the line of scrimmage and also defend passes in nickel coverage. Evrett Edwards and Carter will likely see extended playing time as they slide in for Edwards at the rover spot and McCarthy will need to step up in Cash’s absence. Although McCarthy has plenty of experience with 28 career appearances, the redshirt junior has seen little playing time this season. In his start against Wake Forest, McCarthy struggled to make any stops as he failed to record a tackle.
Indiana has played several top-10 teams close this season, but the Hoosier defense has been suspect, giving up 37.1 points per game. Who will you have your eyes on for the Duke offense Saturday?
NM: I would keep my eyes on Shaquille Powell, who is a senior and one of the more motivated and relentless players on the field. Powell has not really been close to cracking 100 yards since his 98-yard outing in the unforgettable North Carolina defeat. Even so, the Blue Devils have still fed the rock to their senior back, giving him 15 carries—which he took for 46 yards—in the regular season finale against Wake Forest. I expect the Duke offense to feed Powell and Jela Duncan, as Indiana allows 180 yards and 2.2 rushing touchdowns per game. This is not to say the rushing game will rule the contest as the passing game will have some confidence after posting positive results against Wake Forest with Thomas Sirk tossing a pair of scores and no interceptions. Powell and Duncan are still the two to watch, but expect Sirk to take a few downfield shots Saturday.
SJ: When Duke takes pressure off of its quarterback, it tends to be in contention to win games. In the Blue Devils’ seven wins this season—with the exception of Boston College, who boasts the nation’s top total defense—the ground game racked up 150 or more yards. In order to come away from New York with a win, Duke will have to do the same against the Hoosiers, so I'm with Nick on this one. If Duke wants to win the game, it is going to have to avoid the shootout and control the game with its brand of football. Considering Indiana's struggles against the run, the opportunity is there to move the ball on the ground and keep Sirk from forcing the ball downfield or facing the long third downs that have plagued the Blue Devils in losses this season.
BM: Sirk is going to have a huge day in Yankee Stadium Saturday. Indiana enters the contest allowing an average of 326.3 yards per game through the air and the team’s young secondary has been suspect all season. Look for Duke to spread the field with four or five wide receivers and let Sirk go to work in the pocket and pick apart the Hoosier defense through the air. Max McCaffrey should continue to be a reliable target for Sirk, and freshman T.J. Rahming and redshirt junior Anthony Nash seem to be improving each game for the Blue Devils. I think one of the three will have more than 100 yards receiving. Forcing Indiana to sit back in the secondary will also open up opportunities for Sirk find running room either out of the pocket or on designed run plays and I don’t think its out of the question that Sirk finish with around 400 yards of total offense.
ST: I’m also interested to see how Sirk will play. Sirk has had an up-and-down season and has struggled with nagging upper-body injuries. After rotating with backup quarterback Parker Boehme against Virginia, Sirk played well in the team's season finale against Wake Forest, passing for 275 yards and two touchdowns. With several weeks off, Sirk should be rested and healthy. He will need to have a big day both running and passing the ball for the Blue Devils to outscore Indiana.
Led by quarterback Nate Sudfeld, Indiana boasts a prolific offense, scoring 36.1 points per game. How do the Blue Devils match up with weapons on the edge like Simmie Cobbs, and are we destined for a fourth straight bowl game shootout?
NM: I think another bowl game shootout seems fairly inevitable. After letting up over 200 yards through the air just once throughout the first six games, the Duke secondary allowed five of its final six opponents to cross the threshold, with three of the six eclipsing 300 yards. Unlike last season, when the defense bent but didn’t break, this year’s squad could not match up against the superior powers in the ACC, giving up 30 or more points in five of its final six games. I expect Sudfeld, who comes into this game on a three-game stretch boasting nine touchdowns and no interceptions, to play well Saturday. On the season, he’s got 24 scores to five picks, four of which came in a stretch mired by losses to Rutgers and Michigan State and Iowa. The Blue Devils will be without Cash, who made his physical presence felt on both quarterbacks and receivers alike, so I do not expect them to be able to answer everything the Hooiser senior and his offense have in their gameplan.
SJ: With Edwards returning to full-time corner for the game, expect him and fellow defensive back Breon Borders to handle the more prolific weapons like Cobbs on the edge. At the same time, the defensive front should be expected to perform as it has all season, holding opposing ground games to 3.4 yards per carry. The biggest concern will be defending downfield with the fourth and fifth men in the secondary. Without Cash, the biggest issue for Duke is giving up explosive plays like it did against North Carolina—when the team surrendered 8.8 yards per play and three plays of 45 yards or more that resulted in touchdowns. The Hoosiers top the Big Ten in plays of 20 or more yards with 74—including 54 pass plays of that length. With that being said, the Blue Devils match up well in the trenches and on the edge, but over the top, with the way the defense has faltered in the back half of the season, expect another postseason shootout—for Indiana at least. The question really is, will the Blue Devils’ offense be able to keep up or will the shootout turn into a blowout?
BM: We are headed for another shootout. Both defenses struggled late in the season and I expect that to continue Saturday. Sudfeld and Sirk are both poised to have big games and should put up big numbers. I think a major question at this point is whether Howard, the Hoosiers' star running back, is healthy enough to have an impact on the game. If Indiana can get its run game going, the Blue Devils are going to have to rely on man coverage down the field in order to stop the run up front. Borders has shown he can cover just about anyone on the outside, but on the other side of the field, defensive backs Alonzo Saxton II and Jeremy McDuffie have been consistently picked on all season. In order to cover explosive receivers like Cobbs and Ricky Jones, either of the two young corners is going to have to have safety help, which makes it even more crucial that the Blue Devil front six dominates the line of scrimmage.
ST: I have no doubt that this will turn into a shootout. Like Indiana, Duke has struggled on defense, surrendering 499 total yards per game in its last five contests. Duke’s secondary has especially underachieved during the second half of the season and has had a hard time stopping explosive plays. This is in part because of the Blue Devils’ struggles to generate a pass rush without blitzing. Indiana’s spread, zone-read offense will put pressure on Duke’s defensive backs and linebackers. Edwards and Borders will rotate covering Cobbs— who has 54 receptions for 914 yards this season—and the Hoosier’s other main receiver Jones.
Lastly, does Duke break its 54-year bowl win drought this weekend in the Big Apple? Who wins and why?
NM: The Blue Devils will, somehow, find a way to win Saturday. I could easily see Indiana jumping out to an early lead, but the Duke seniors are both a talented and resilient bunch, and if past years have been any indicator, these teams play extremely well in bowl games—minus the last few minutes. Duncan and Powell are a dynamic pair, and the Hoosier defense, which has looked awfully suspect at times, is not going to slow the both of them down enough to keep Ross Martin from coming on the field. Don’t count on Sirk to bust out for 400 yards, but he can have a very effective performance against this defense if he keeps his head and confidence in and out of the pocket. Duke will feed off a big performance from the dual-headed attack in the backfield and finally capture that elusive bowl victory, 35-31.
SJ: As much as Duke has emphasized closing its season with a bowl win for the first time since 1961, I do not see it happening this season, especially without Cash. Any momentum from their first six wins was lost during the second half of the season when the Blue Devils dropped four of their last five games. On the other hand, the Hoosiers have scored 40 or more points in three straight games—a feat which Duke has not accomplished since its four overtime shootout with Virginia Tech Oct. 24. The ability to score at will and produce explosive plays is the difference in the game, especially without a big-play offense to retaliate in the Blue Devils’ repertoire. Final score: Indiana 45, Duke 31.
BM: It looks like this game could be neck and neck and I expect that whoever has the ball last might end up winning the Pinstripe Bowl. But I think the Blue Devil defense, even without Cash, will pull out enough stops to put Duke in a good position to win the game. David Cutcliffe’s team has also made big special teams plays in each of its last three bowl games and I expect that trend to continue on Saturday. With all that being said, I think that Duke finally ends its bowl drought Saturday with a 42-35 win against Indiana in front of a large blue and white contingent at Yankee Stadium.
ST: This will not be the year that Duke ends its 54-year bowl drought. Sirk and Duke’s offense will not be able to keep up with Indiana’s high-powered attack and the Hoosiers will win 41-34. Although Indiana has surrendered 507.2 yards per game, Duke’s offense has also been inconsistent and has struggled to push the ball downfield. Duke’s inability to stop explosive run and pass plays on defense will continue Saturday as the Blue Devils rely on several reserves to replace Cash.
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